Hard News by Russell Brown


"Because we can"

It's become customary to bemoan the way that Morning Report hosts no longer hold ministers' feet to the fire the way they used to -- assuming the ministers can even be bothered to turn up. Well, Social Welfare minister Paula Bennett did front up this morning -- and was subject to a methodical, well-organised interview by Todd Niall.

You can hear that here:

Several things caught my attention.

In response to Niall's proposition, with resepect to the government's new requirements of beneficiary parents (on pain of their payments being cut) that "in some of the larger benefit groups" the welfare system had become "no longer a safety net [but] a reward for people whose lives will fit a government-designed template," Bennett said:

I think it does become that safety net and I think over time what it instead has become is a bit of a trap for quite a few people when we've seen 161,000 people have been on for at least five of the last 10 years (and) 139,000 for at least 10 years.

I'm damned if I can make this work. There are currently, as of June, 320,000 people on "main benefits" (I'll link to Gordon Campbell's more detailed blog here, because the source MSD figures are presented, crazily, as a series of Word documents). So 43% of them have been on continuously for more than a decade? Who are they? Only 10% of the 112,200 DPB recipients -- the people the goverment wants to "help" -- had been continuously in receipt for more than 10 years as of June. So more than 60% of all other beneficiaries have been on benefits for more than 10 years continuously? Really? Help me out here.

Niall put another question. He asked: "Why put these requirements on beneficiaries and not on that larger group of people who also receive government assistance in the form of the working for families tax credit?" And the minister said:

Mmmm ... because we can.

To be fair, she continued with this:

Because we work with these people all the time. because they are coming in to work and income and it's more than just coming in to pick up their benefit I think it's coming in and seeing how we can help them get off benefit what their long terms plans are what sort of support and training they're going to need and also looking at what's available for their children as far as being enrolled with a GP as far as getting early childhood education. We can do it, we see them often and it's easier to do.

Well, that explains how the government might help. It doesn't answer the moral question of why it's proper to threaten beneficiaries with financial sanctions for the good of their children, but not WFF recipients. It would be no more difficult to make WFF support conditional in the same way as the benefits will be now. It would simply be vastly less popular.

It seems to me that the minister's promise of help is fatally undercut by the threat of sanctions -- the likes of the new one-strike rule for people who fail to take a job, no matter how unsuitable it might be. The rational response to this kind of environment is to keep your damn fool head down. 

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